Moving learning into the 21st century…

We had a great time in our collaborative planning session this week, moving one of our Year 5 inquiry units into the 21st century. It’s an exploration of plants and how they grow, in conjunction with hands-on work in our school kitchen-garden, and an inquiry into the environmental conditions that affect plant growth.

What’s changed?

21st century

They used to… do leaf rubbings with paper and pencil to see what leaves look like.

Now they will use an iPad magnifier app to look at leaves up close.

They used to… draw diagrams and label the parts of a plant.

Now they will choose their own species, research it themselves and create an animated slideshow of its parts.

They used to…. grow bean plants and watch them grow.

Now they will take a photo of their beans every day and create a stop motion video showing the growth process.

They used to… do experiments related to plant growth and write scientific reports for the teacher.

Now they will film their experiments and upload them to their class blogs with their reports, to enable comments from the wider community.

They used to… read about different kinds of plants that grow in other places and how they adapt to their environment.

Now they will message people around the world to send a photo of a plant that grows where they live, so that they can discuss and analyse their findings.

In each case, it is the learning that drives the technology. In each case, the students will be more engaged. In each case, the learning will be richer and deeper.

Let me know if you are willing to send a photo next month, especially if you live in an environment different from ours here in Melbourne!

10 questions learners shouldn’t ask…

Curiosity is the key to learning. If you read this blog, you know how much I value a culture of questioning and thinking. But there are some questions I would rather hear less frequently in the classroom. Okay, I might not answer some of them in quite this way, but you get the point. It’s about stepping back, giving the learners more ownership of their learning, encouraging independence…

1. Is this good?  

I don’t know. What do you think?

2. How do you want me to do it?

How do you want to do it?

3. What’s the right answer?

I don’t know. What do you think?

4. How do you do this?

What possibilities can you think of?

5. The computer isn’t working. What should I do?

What have you tried?

6. Do you like what I wrote?

Do you like what you wrote?

7. Is this enough? How long should it be? 

How much is enough? Have you said everything you want to say?

8. Can I try something different?

Isn’t that your job as a learner?

9. Do we have to do it?

Maybe not. Do you have a better idea?

10. Is this a silly question?

There are no silly questions… Oh, wait, there are.

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning.


Great questions have legs…


I have some questions to ask you…

Do you ask questions to check for recall of information?
Or to help students clarify their thinking and construct meaning for themselves?

Do you play ‘guess what’s in my head’?
Or do you encourage learners to keep digging deeper?

Do you stop asking once you  get the answer you were  looking for?
Or do you ask questions you don’t already know the answer to?

Do you think answers are more important than questions?
Or are you excited when questions lead to even more questions?


Do you hear the answers and move on to the next question?
Or do you listen really carefully so the responses can guide where to go next?

Do you praise students who give great answers?
Or do you push students further by asking them to explain, elaborate and justify?

Do you rephrase the question if you no one responds?
Or do you give learners time to think, discuss and make connections?

Is every question and answer directed through you?
Or do students respond directly to each others questions?

Great questions have legs. They propel the learning forward.

(‘Making Thinking Visible’ by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison)

(Reading the above. Some of my thinking made visible here!)


I’m building a cathedral…

Apparently this is a well-known fable, but I only discovered it recently…

Three men were working on a building site. When asked what they were doing, the first man answered ‘I am laying bricks.’ The second said ‘I am making a wall’ and the third replied ‘I am building a cathedral’

It’s about vision, isn’t it? It made me think of teachers. The ‘cathedral builders’ amongst us don’t talk about how little time we have to lay bricks and make walls. We know we’re building a cathedral…


10 questions to ask yourself…

1. How would you like to stand in a line and wait for somebody to look at your work and give their approval?

2. Are you interested in listening to the other people read aloud one at a time?

3. How would you feel if all the decisions were made by someone else?

4. Do you enjoy sitting passively while someone talks at you?

5. Would you like it if your principal yelled at you (in front of others) when you did something wrong?

6.  What if some people were singled out for special awards and you never got recognition, no matter how hard you tried?

7. How would you feel if someone insisted that you express your thinking in the particular way they chose for you?

8. Would you like to receive a number or letter grade for every task you completed?

9. What if you were only permitted to eat, drink and go to the toilet at specific times, determined by someone else?

10.  Does checking your email or texting mean you are not working?

Would you like to be in your class?

Someone who loves the learning…

My new role this year means I work closely with teachers. I participate in unit planning, facilitate learning sessions and have conversations about teaching and learning.

Some teachers are more receptive than others. Some debate and argue. Most engage with the learning and our collaboration is rich and rewarding.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I see my own excitement reflected in the eyes of the teacher I am working with. I feel the spark of a genuine connection with someone who is totally on the same wavelength as me.  Someone who values a culture of thinking the way I do and is part of the community of learners in their classroom. Someone who is able to let go of control and ensure students own their learning. Someone who loves the learning as much as I do.


A Teacher’s Story

In this guest post, Michael Graffin , a young Australian teacher, shares his story…

A life journey begins …

About seven years ago, I was the Year 12 Academic Dux of my school, and I had no idea about what I wanted to do with my life. My teachers wanted me to become an engineer. My parents thought I’d make a good teacher.

My journey began as a work-experience student at my local primary school, where an encounter with one particular child would change the course of my life. This child wasn’t the nicest, brightest or most well-behaved kid in the class. He was small, academically weak, and not particularly well-behaved. Unfortunately, his teacher’s management approach consisted of yelling and sending him to time-out in the storage alcove at the back of the class, his “second home”.

Even then, this struck a nerve; and I made a point of working with this kid in his little time-out space. To this day, I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as I helped him with his maths. At that point, I knew: I was going into teaching to help those troubled children who other teachers had given up on.

I was only 17, and I was going to be a teacher. Little did I know …

I excelled in my university studies, yet I entered teaching ill-equipped to cope with the practical realities of teaching. While I took steps to rectify my glaring weaknesses, more than anyone will ever know, I spent my first year and a half of teaching feeling disillusioned, bitter, incompetent and isolated.

Things got better …

I was a relief  teacher – free to learn from my mistakes, develop my classroom management skills, and take risks in my teaching. It wasn’t an easy road – I got knocked around on many occasions, but I came to appreciate the opportunity to observe and reflect on experienced teachers’ practice in different schools.

But they haven’t always gone to plan …

I was appointed to my very first class – without warning, on the first day of the 2011 school year. Sadly, the position lasted a mere six days. There was a staffing reallocation, and my class, ‘Room 11’, was no more. My students were split up, and I was moved into a temporary, eclectic teaching and support role.

It took me a long time to recover from this crushing disappointment, but I became a stronger, more mature teacher for the experience. I may not have had my ‘own’ class, but for the first time in my life, I felt like a teacher. I had my staff badge, my own keys, and the freedom to quietly experiment with ICT. I wasn’t an outsider. I was part of a community.

I’ve learnt and been through so much, and I’m moving on …

My journey wasn’t meant to be easy. It’s been one wild ride. Yet, with the grace of God, I’m still here. I’m not quitting. Why should I?  My experiences have helped me better appreciate my family and my PLN (Personal Learning Network).

Now, after rediscovering my passion for teaching, I take a great deal of comfort from @coolcatteacher’s recent reflections:  

The greatest teachers often have the greatest obstacles to overcome. The greatest shames … You don’t really see the pain. You don’t [see] the heartache …. as they experience their own humiliation and failure. They are there.  

I know.  I see it.  I feel it.  I refuse to believe it is all for nothing.

One day, I will teach a class of my own. For now, it’s time to move on.

Perhaps, one day, I will become a great teacher.  I certainly hope so.

Michael blogs at A Relief Teacher’s Journey.


Are you open?

Out on an early morning walk, I spotted this shop window and couldn’t resist taking a photo.  It brought to mind…

  • people who say they are open to change but keep doing things in old ways.
  • people who say they are interested in others’ ideas, but don’t listen.
  • people who say they want to learn but then insist they don’t have time.
  • teachers who know it’s the 21st century, but are still reluctant to embrace technology.
  • teachers who talk about letting go, but make every decision in their classroom.
  • teachers who say they value collaboration, but insist their classroom is quiet.
  • teachers who ‘attend’ professional development but don’t apply anything they learned.
  • students who want to learn, but need to do so in unconventional ways.
  • learners who are filled with creative ideas but bound by constraints of curriculum.

Then when I inserted the photo here, I noticed my own reflection in the window. It reminded me that the ‘open/closed’ dichotomy applies to me too. Don’t we all at times think ours is the best perspective, the most efficient way or the right answer?

It’s a reminder to noticenot just to hear or half-hear, but to listen to and think about what our colleagues are saying. And what our students are saying. And what they are not saying. And what we ourselves are saying…


Has your educational philosophy changed?

Brian Barry is a teacher in Nunavut, Canada. I know what he believes about teaching and learning and he knows my beliefs, although we have never met. We have read each other’s blogs and exchanged ideas on Twitter. One of my favourite posts from his blog was one in which he asked teachers to think about what’s important, in the interest of letting go and allowing students to take control. I’ve used it in PD sessions with teachers at my school.

Brian has a fascinating series happening on his blog at the moment, in which he has been interviewing educators around the world about their experience and beliefs.  Some are well known personalities, others are members of  his personal learning network, and it’s interesting to read what’s important to them. Since I was included in his series, I thought I’d invite him to answer the same questions for my blog…

How long have you been teaching?

I am in my 12th year of teaching in Nunavut, Canada. I have taught Grades 4 (4 years), 7 (2 years), 8 (2 years), 9 (4 years).

Has your educational philosophy changed since you began teaching?

Yes. It used to be based on extrinsic motivation. I used rewards and punishment to control students. Now it is based on intrinsic motivation. I try to tap into my students natural curiosity. Their motivation now comes from within (intrinsic). They control themselves, not me controlling them.

Has Twitter played a role in your evolution as a teacher? If so, how?

Indeed. It has helped me grow by making connections with teachers of like mind. Moreover, I have connected with teachers that have changed my mind on specific topics.

What’s the best advice you have received as a teacher (or can give to a new teacher)?

Teaching is all about students and not subjects. That means it is about relationship building. Get to know your students; ask them plenty of questions about themselves. The rest will follow.

As I write this post, I realise that strangely, I know less about some of the teachers in my own school than I do about Brian, or many other educators whose blogs I read regularly. So, if you teach at my school (and if you don’t) I invite you to reflect on the questions above and answer them in a comment. There’s so much to learn…

My answers are here.